Khmer Rouge survivor tells of 'killing field' escape

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — A Cambodian man told the Khmer Rouge war crimes court Tuesday that he escaped a notorious "killing field" despite being knocked into a pit full of corpses after surviving the regime's main jail.

Phork Khan, 57, was testifying at the trial of jail chief Duch, who is accused of overseeing the torture and execution of around 15,000 people who passed through Tuol Sleng prison.

The witness described how he was transported to Choeung Ek, the best known of hundreds of sites in the country where victims of the 1975-1979 regime were killed, after a pair of brutal interrogation sessions.

"I was put at the edge of a pit and I knew that would be the last day," Phork Khan told the UN-backed tribunal as he described kneeling in the former orchard along with other prisoners.

But he said he was merely knocked unconscious into the pit after executioners aimed blows at his knees and ribs, and later awoke underneath dead fellow prisoners.

"My hands were tied but I tried to crawl moving on top of the other corpses. I was so skinny, I could not even stand or walk properly," he said.

"I could see the bloodstains all over my body and it smelled so bad. Because of the smell, I was about to fall unconscious again and then I got out of the pit," he added.

Phork Khan went on to recount that he heard the sound of guns of invading Vietnamese forces in January 1979 as he left the field at dawn, and was rescued by troops after using a wooden plank to float down a river.

However after Phork Khan described his plight, judge Nil Nonn informed him that he had filed a different version of events in court documents, including details that he had escaped by hiding in a pond.

"This is a stark contrast to what you have stated regarding the facts to this chamber... How can you explain the facts I've just read out to you?" Nil Nonn said.

Phork Khan answered that the earlier written version of his escape was composed with help from a civil society representative.

"What I described before this chamber is my true account on the day I was taken to be killed," he said.

He also told the court he was taken to Tuol Sleng in 1978 after being arrested at a railway station, and that Duch attended one of his two interrogations at the notorious prison.

Phork Khan said he was stripped, served starvation rations of gruel and whipped by interrogators while he lay face down with his hands and feet bound.

"I was asked, 'Comrade, do you know where your wife died?' And I responded, 'My wife was arrested,'" he told the court.

"Then I was asked if I wanted to die the same way my wife died or my cousin died," he said, adding that documents show his cousin was killed at Tuol Sleng but he never discovered what happened to his wife.

Duch is expected on Wednesday to respond to Phork Khan's testimony.

He was the seventh survivor to recount before the court his experiences at Tuol Sleng, although Duch has disputed whether three of the witnesses had indeed been detained at his notorious jail.

The 66-year-old Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, begged forgiveness from the victims near the start of his trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity after accepting responsibility for his role in governing the jail.

But he has consistently rejected claims by prosecutors that he held a central leadership role in the Khmer Rouge, and says he never personally executed anyone.

Led by Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Khmer Rouge emptied Cambodia's cities in a bid to forge a communist utopia. Up to two million people died of starvation, overwork and torture or were executed during the regime.

Four other former Khmer Rouge leaders are currently in detention and are expected to face trial next year.

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